Dystopian

Lion’s Head Deception by Chuck Waldron

Lion's Head DeceptionTitle: Lion’s Head Deception
Author: Chuck Waldron
Publisher: Booklocker
Pages: 318
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1626463689
ISBN-13: 978-1626463684

Purchase at AMAZON

In the prologue, the backdrop for Lion’s Head Deception is set, amongst rioting and unrest in a destabilized city.

Matt Tremain is a shy, private person who discovers a passion for writing blogs—a mission that propels him into investigative reporting. A tipster warns him of a diabolical scheme Matt simply can’t ignore. After the tipster is killed, Matt honors his memory by going forward to investigate the truth behind the conspiracy. He meets a television reporter and a cameraman also investigating the intrigue. Are they potential partners or rivals? A detective offers his assistance, but Matt is unsure of his true motivation. He is equally unsure of the allegiance of those in the top administration of police services. Matt Tremain and his friends are forced to go on the run, evading the newly-formed security teams. They must expose the truth before they are discovered, arrested and perhaps exterminated themselves…

The reader is introduced to Matt Tremain when a test message warns him of impending arrest. The first part of the novel provides an understanding of how he learns about a conspiracy, and the person behind it. A television journalist is investigating the same treachery. Will they be able to join forces? The end of part one introduces a police detective. Will he be friend or foe?

Part two takes place at a private retreat. The antagonist, the scheme’s architect, unveils the complete details of his plan and gets the backing of his three co-conspirators. The location is the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario. It takes place at Lion’s Head and gives the novel the working name.

In an action-packed run to the finish line, will Matt and his partners be able to face the challenges it will take to expose the lies and treachery behind Operation CleanSweep?

First Chapter:

UNEXPECTED EVENTS

 

“This story just in to our Action 21 News desk . . . police have tentatively identified the person who apparently jumped to his death from the City View Condominium building last night. According to a detective on scene it was Matthew Tremain, popular investigative blogger. No further information is available, but a source did say that Tremain was undergoing treatment for depression.

The suicide count is now up to fifteen, according to reports. Ever since the rioting began and the new regulations have been implemented, it has been difficult to access official records.

In other news, there is still no word on the whereabouts of Action 21 Television’s own reporter Susan Payne and her cameraman. Prior to her disappearance Payne was working on a background story regarding Operation CleanSweep and its connections to the rioting.”

He tried to ignore the Looky-loos, gathering faster than fleas eyeballing a dog’s back. Holding his badge up and crouching to step under the crime scene tape, he heaved a sigh. “Detective Carling,” the tone reflected his displeasure. “This had to happen at the end of my shift. There’s a paperwork hurricane heading this way, for sure.”

“It shouldn’t be too bad, suicide for sure. It’s been like this ever since the riots,” the officer holding up the tape replied. “Just this morning—”

Carling stopped him, not wanting to hear the rest. He sniffed the unpleasant, acrid smell, still lingering as reminders of the numerous fires during the week of rioting.

Hearing someone say, “That guy’s straight out of an old black and white movie with that hat,” Carling turned to glare in the direction of the comment and removed his fedora to wipe sweat from his forehead with his shirt sleeve. Stopping to talk briefly with another uniformed officer, he was pointed toward a woman who was trembling, coffee spilling over the rim of the take-out cup in her hand.

He put a hand on her shoulder and gently moved her away as the growing crowd leaned forward as one, trying to hear what was being said. Carling took a deep breath to conceal his irritation.

“I understand you saw the…uh…incident.”

She nodded with a look that could have been a yes or a no.

“Yes, it was an appalling thing to see,” she told him with a shiver.

He opened his notebook, ready to document the interview.

“I didn’t know bodies bounced,” she said and started to cry.

After finishing the interview he noticed a man holding a martini glass, empty except for a green olive nestled in the bottom. He called to a uniformed officer who lifted the tape and ushered the man over to be questioned.

“It’s quite unusual to see a man wearing a smoking jacket to a crime scene,” Carling’s tone implied his curiosity, hiding behind sarcasm. “What did you see?”

“I was sipping a perfectly chilled martini, about to say something to my wife, when I saw something falling past the window. It was most odd. I thought it was a man.” The witness looked down at the empty glass in his hand, as if realizing for the first time it was unfilled. “Like I said, it was most odd. I tell you it unnerved me to the point that my martini glass began shaking.”

Never stirred, Carling couldn’t help thinking.

“It was a man falling past the window, I was certain,” the witness continued. “I had just seen a man flapping his arms almost as if he could fly. When I told my wife she asked me if I was sure. She was quite correct with her question. We do live on the thirty-first floor, after all,” he said and then paused as if reliving the moment. “I thought it had to be my imagination until I saw people running towards our building,” the witness in the smoking jacket gestured toward his condominium.

“I do hope those dreadful riots aren’t starting up again,” the witness murmured as Carling watched him re-join the crowd standing in the smoky air, wrinkling his brow at the police barricades being erected in front of his condominium building. “Something like this just doesn’t’ happen here,” he said to a man next to him.

His fifteen seconds of fame, Carling decided.

“Look at that guy,” the detective heard again. “He has to be a cop with that hat,” an observation repeated to the amusement of the onlookers.

Ever since the rioting my city has had its back broken, it’s gone to hell in a hand basket, and all he can be concerned about is my hat?

 

***

 

Two weeks prior Matt had no way of knowing about that newscast in his future. It was almost a normal day, so far.

Matt Tremain didn’t consider himself to be brave, certainly not one of those superheroes having steely resolve in the face of danger. Being short and walking with a limp, he once said he wore a bull’s-eye target on his back when he was in middle school. Picked on and pushed around nearly every day, he finally took a stand to face down two of the largest bullies. He didn’t decide to stand up to them; it was more like he recognized he had no real alternative. He went at them like a pit bull, tenacious and unrelenting. When the fight was over, and the pain gradually subsided, his reputation was reshaped. Even though he lost, people openly admired his tenacity. It didn’t hurt to have a big brain, either.

Now, he would need both of those attributes again when his phone chirped.

Looking down at the text message, Matt felt like he had been hit with a sucker punch to his gut. Before his phone started to vibrate, it had been just a regular day. He later wondered how many people had a record of the exact time and date of such a turning point in their lives.

It was a Thursday morning, his least favorite day of the week, when he walked into Le Rôti Français, a trendy coffee house with a caffeinated menu filling an entire wall.

He tried to ignore the TV mounted high on the wall behind the service counter. Ever since the rioting, there was little news other than continual coverage of the destruction. Action 21 News was the only station back on the air, and they had been airing commercial-free, non-stop updates about the rioting. Many, like Matt, were beginning to feel anaesthetized by the repetitive stories and images.

Walking through the door, Matthew Tremain noticed a woman watching him walk with a slight limp. The limp was evident, but not pronounced. A speed bump in his DNA double helix caused one leg to be a bit shorter than the other. It was that way when he was born, and it was still that way 32 years later. He tried to pretend it didn’t bother him as he glanced over at the woman who wore a sympathetic look on her face. He knew he should be used to pity like that, but it still bothered him, a lot. He pushed his anger aside and walked to the counter.

Running late, and this morning, of all mornings! Fidgeting, he asked himself, why did I have to end up standing behind these two?

CleanSweep! The word came, uninvited, into his mind. When did I first learn about CleanSweep? Tanner’s email! Was it only a few weeks ago now?

He brushed the word, and his growing anxiety, to the side of his thoughts, overhearing the discussion in front of him.

“I’m going to have a latte,” the first young woman said, sounding hesitant.

“Are you sure?” her friend countered. “You were going to try a cappuccino,” she said. “If you aren’t going to have that, why not just get an ex-presso?”

It was all Matt could do not to shout, to tell them there was no ‘x’ in espresso.

CleanSweep! The word clawed at his memory again. He couldn’t get CleanSweep out of his head.

“I want to try something different,” the first woman insisted. “I just can’t make up my mind,” she said, sounding pouty. Finally, after what seemed an interminable wait, she said she was ready and pointed in a vague way, “What does a masha…mashia…”

“Machiatto,” the clerk –

Matt had been enjoying the clerk’s annoyance when his phone started to vibrate, his ringtone for an incoming text message followed. Struggling to get it out of his jean’s pocket, he flipped it open to look at the screen, his life-defining moment, time stamped at 9:56 a.m.

It was the warning he’d been hoping he would never get it. Now, as he was reading it, an emotional trap door opened under his feet.

His shock immobilized him as he gripped the phone, his breath and heart rate fast-tracking. Anyone looking would have noticed his eyes widen a bit, a silent primal scream starting from somewhere deep inside as he stared at the screen, not wanting to believe.

ST2MORO@7. GY6. 7FF. 14AA41.        

He translated the text-speak in his mind:

ST2MORO@7: same time tomorrow, at seven.

GY6: I’ve got your six.

7FF: seven friends forever.

14AA41: one for all and all for one.

The real message, however, was a hidden numerical code within the code. Three critical numbers were those following the number two. He scanned the message. The first critical number was 7, the next a 6, and the third another 7, SOS on a standard telephone keypad. It meant he was in grave danger; he was being warned.

How long do I have?

The simple code was never intended to be unbreakable, simply enough to frustrate anyone trying to poke around and sniff through e-mail, texts, and chats.

Will it be enough now? Does this give me time to escape?

A voice in his head urged him to run, although running was the worst thing he could do right now. Instead, he walked to the door of the coffee shop without ordering, his thumb clicking two letters in response, CX for “cancelled and going offline.” He pressed the enter key, letting his team know he understood the significance of the danger he was in. They knew he would contact them when it was safe.

Will I ever be safe again? He couldn’t help wondering.

His CX message also triggered a program on his primary computer, and he knew it was already at work eliminating all history of any documents, contacts and communications, along with all traces of his back-up system. His hand went up to his chest, an instinct to make sure he could feel the four media cards hanging on a lanyard under his shirt. Everything was on those media cards.

On the sidewalk he looked around to make sure no one was watching as he pried open the back of the phone, removing the battery and tossing it into a trash receptacle. He used a finger to pry out the SIM card, kneeling to drop it through the slots of a drainage grill. Cyberia warned him his movements could be tracked by the SIM card, even if the phone wasn’t being used.

            Is someone watching now? How would I know? He should have been thinking about that before now. He had to be more careful. Looking around again to see if anyone was looking, he let the phone drop, stepping on it hard until the plastic case shattered. Then he kicked the shards off the curb and into the street. He winced at a ticklish sensation—sweat droplets forming on his cheeks, tracing their slow path to his chin. As he walked to the subway entrance, it took all of his self-control not to run. Cyberia had warned him there would be teams of watchers, looking for exactly that type of panic. “Don’t let them see you sweat,” he had said. What Matt knew about the tradecraft of spies and undercover techniques was limited to what he read in books and watched in movies. This wasn’t make-believe though, not a game to be played at.

Will my clumsy effort at tradecraft be enough? Will it keep me alive? Oh, man. I’ve been looking over my shoulder like this ever since CleanSweep put a price on my head.

He did his best to imitate an oyster closing its shell for protection. He wanted to conceal his fear as shoppers and commuters rushed past him like the current in a river flowing around a rock.

“Morning, Buddy.”

Matt’s head snapped up.

“Filthy weather, isn’t it?” A man in a soiled army surplus jacket was standing next to a newspaper kiosk, clapping his gloved hands, his breath steaming. “Especially with all this smoke,” he said as he started coughing, a cough that soon turned to spasms, causing him to pull out a stained handkerchief to press to his lips.

“Morning…,” Matt managed to mutter, forcing himself ignore the man’s dirty rag and turned instead to examine several of the newspapers on display. He started to complain to the news vender, to ask him why he allowed a homeless man to hang around like that. He choked off the words, chiding himself for his lack of compassion. It has to be all this…the stress.

Instead, he tried to look like a man unable to decide on which newspaper to buy.

More importantly, he used the opportunity to look past the display racks, on the alert for anything out of the ordinary—a head turning away too quickly, or someone abruptly stepping back into shadows to avoid detection.

He was sure he read about doing something like that in a spy novel—how to spot if you were being tailed.

He reached for a newspaper, choosing one at random. Starting to sort through coins, he noticed a man across the street. Is he looking directly at me? Yes, straight at me. Matt froze, seeing the man holding his right sleeve up to his mouth.

Oh no, he’s whispering into a microphone!

Matt watched the man cough into the elbow of his coat sleeve, then turn and wave to a passing taxi. Matt let out a long, slow breath. It was nothing. As he exhaled, he did his best to maintain a puzzled look, to appear like he was curious—like a man with no purpose in mind—as he turned around to use a store display window as a mirror. He didn’t see anything suspicious and started walking again.

If I can only get to the subway, blend in at rush hour.

He saw the sign for the subway entrance and pulled his collar up against the falling temperatures. He shivered, knowing it was as much fear as weather, as he felt the first droplets of cold rain splattering against his face.

That’s when he saw them. A sharp pang of fear gripped him, like a lion raking claws across his chest. Two large men were walking towards him. This time, he knew the danger was real. They wore their suits like detectives, each man with dark circles under his eyes, badges of sleeplessness and too much coffee. They were poster boys for the guys he knew were coming for him. It took every ounce of his self-control to look calm. He wanted to run.

It’s hopeless. He was cornered. Oddly, he felt relieved, watching as they drew near. The taller one, the one on the left, pulled his hand out of his coat pocket. He was holding something in his hand, and he began swinging his arm up in a menacing arc. They flashed counterfeit smiles, recognition in their eyes. He flinched; they almost knocked him to the ground as they shouldered by, then he turned to see them shake hands with someone walking to meet them.

“We have a reservation,” he heard one of them say in a voice that hinted at annoyance, “I was just going to call you on my cell.”

Matt left the rest of their words trailing behind, a sensation of intense relief spread over his face as a short, wizened woman carrying a shopping bag gave him a puzzled look.

He pulled his jacket tight as icy pellets started to prick at his face.

Am I shaking from the cold or that near miss? He wanted to laugh at himself. Panic and paranoia were taking over and making him feel and look irrational.

Shaking off his emotions, he began to move. Daggers of ice pellets assaulted him as he fast-walked to the subway entrance. He fished a token from his jeans and pushed through the turnstile. Directional arrows pointed the way to the train platforms where he was greeted by an eclectic perfume of steamy clothes, garlic, and closely packed commuters. Standing on the platform, he felt a gush of wind signal the approaching train, pushing compressed air into the station. The grinding sound of its wheels sang a harsh song of metal on metal, like the gnashing of a giant’s teeth. He waited for it to come to a stop, standing to one side to let passengers disembark. A young woman with a backpack was the last exiting passenger. He darted through the open door and lunged for an empty seat. He waited for the doors to whoosh shut, and silently urged the train to move. When it did, he welcomed the familiar rocking motion, even the scream of the wheels making their ear-piercing racket as the train lurched around another curve.

He started to relax. I’m going to make it.

He looked up at the electronic advertising panels, flat-screen images scrolling around the car. It was a continuous looping picture along with a warning to call 711, the new hotline established for Operation CleanSweep. It was a video showing his own face, staring back at him from the electronic panels ringing the subway car, flashing hi-definition video displays of a wanted man.

Why didn’t Cyberia disable –?

Suddenly, the video images scrambled to snowy static, visual white noise, and went blank. Holding the back of a seat, he pulled himself up as the subway train braked to a stop and the doors began to open.

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Book Spotlight: The Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith

THE MIRACLE INSPECTOR, by Helen Smith, Tyger Books, 252 pp., $9.99 ($2.99 Kindle).

The Miracle Inspector is a dystopian thriller set in the near future. England has been partitioned and London is an oppressive place where poetry has been forced underground, theatres and schools are shut, and women are not allowed to work outside the home. A young couple, Lucas and Angela, try to escape from London – with disastrous consequences.

Book Excerpt:

Chapter One:

Lucas was dressed smartly, ready for work. He sat at the kitchen table and buttered his toast, and cracked at the top of the boiled egg his wife had made him for breakfast. Angela stood nearby, scrubbing at a small spot on the working surface. Layers of regret hung between them like unfashionable wallpaper. It made the place seem ugly.

‘You know what would be nice?’ Angela said.

Lucas didn’t answer. He was not being impolite, he was waiting for her to express her feelings.

She said, ‘If we could go somewhere…’

He didn’t speak. He licked his fingers. He couldn’t eat the egg but he ate his toast. He waited for her to continue.

‘…together. I wish there was something…’

He noticed that she had stopped rubbing the spot, as if speaking the words had been helping to power her hand. Or perhaps it was the other way around. He’d have liked to make a joke of it. Would the nub of it – the joke – be something about kinetic energy?

‘Will you be home for your tea?’ she said.

‘Yes,’ he said. He wiped his hands and brushed himself down, preparing to leave her. With his weary, cautious manner, his formal clothes, he could have been forty-five years old. He was not quite twenty-five.

‘Unless there’s a miracle?’

‘Well, then you definitely wouldn’t have to cook tea.’ He laughed, thinking they would share a moment.

She stared blankly back at him.

‘If I discovered a miracle, you’d come and see it,’ he said. ‘Wouldn’t you?’

She set to work on that spot on the working surface again. She loved her husband; it had been a love match, not forced. There’d probably be only four or five years before one or other of them fell foul of the authorities, so she ought to treasure their time together. But most of their time ‘together’ was spent alone, and the dull routine of running a household was wearing her down. She was making a study of dinosaurs from the encyclopaedias she had salvaged when the local library closed down. Memorising the long names kept her mind occupied, with decisions about how to pronounce the multiple syllables providing a counterpoint to mundane tasks like shaking out the mat, folding linen, polishing taps. Recent attempts to use the recitation of dinosaur names and characteristics as a method of timing the preparation of the egg she boiled each morning for Lucas’s breakfast had thus far ended in failure.

Angela rubbed and rubbed at the spot on the working surface even though she could no longer see it. This was her life for the foreseeable future. She was not quite twenty-one years old.

That evening, when Lucas came home again, Angela didn’t even ask him how his day went. What made her so sure he hadn’t found anything, that it wasn’t worth asking about his day? What if he had the secret with him now, the beautiful, pure, shining truth of it? How would he put it? He was no good with words. ‘Darling, I’ve got some wonderful news. You must keep it to yourself for now.’ Would she think it was a good thing? He realised with a blush that she might not like him to use the word ‘darling’. It was silly and old-fashioned. He didn’t like it much himself – it reminded him of that old reprobate, Jesmond.

‘It’s a bit dry,’ Angela said to him. She was talking about the fish she had put on the plates for their evening meal. She could have been talking about their relationship. How could he put that in a lighthearted way, without seeming critical or prurient, inviting comparisons with wetness, which she wouldn’t approve of, and which he hadn’t actually meant to suggest? After some consideration, he said nothing.

‘You could have called me today.’

‘I couldn’t, not really.’

‘They didn’t have phones wherever you were?’

If I knew a secret, I would keep it for you. That’s what he wanted to say. It seemed too craven. He tried to bring some sunshine in to the room. He thought about what it would be like to sit on some grass somewhere, looking at the light on her face. ‘Maybe we could have a holiday. Would you like that? Richmond or Highgate or somewhere nice. You choose.’

He watched her thinking about what he said, chewing it over in her mind, trying to break it down and make it digestible. She even moved her jaw a little, as if she had a mouth full of hi-fibre bread and was finding it difficult to despatch. But she didn’t reply.

The silences were not something he had expected from marriage. Sex, yes. Companionship. Someone to cook a meal and sit down and eat with, that kind of thing. The silences had evolved naturally, a way of being: ‘Our silences’, yet with no emptiness or vacancy in them. Instead, there were whole worlds contained in those silences; millions of gossamer strands of understanding going back and forth between them, like an invisible version of that fibreglass loft insulation that was illegal now. At school, his art teacher had explained to him that if he wanted to draw something, a chair, for example, he shouldn’t look only at what he could see – the structure of the thing – but also at the spaces. Sometimes it helped to draw the spaces. Similarly, in conversations with his wife, Lucas felt that to acknowledge only the words that were said would have been unhelpful. Their relationship was also about the silences.

He wanted a way to tell her out loud that he loved her and that her silences warmed him like invisible now-illegal loft insulation. But he couldn’t. It would only have come out sounding like a chorus from one of those Country and Western parody acts that were briefly popular on the radio a few years ago, before radio stations were banned and all the apparatus in London confiscated.

That was what he was thinking. What was she thinking?

How long had they been married? It seemed to him that he had never before wondered what she was thinking – although that was impossible, and he must have wondered and then forgotten about it. When she spoke, he listened and then reacted to the words he heard her say. Too often he was briefly wounded by the awfulness of what she said. Later, he would find a way of being reassured by it; it was just ‘her way’. Had he never before stopped to wonder if there was any subtext to what she said, to wonder whether she struggled with silly thoughts that she hid from him, the way he hid his thoughts from her? He didn’t remember ever doing so. He was too preoccupied with keeping his thoughts hidden to worry about hers.

If he could prise open her head with a penknife and put a straw into her brain and siphon out the thoughts, suck them up and then drip them out on to a specially-prepared surface in front of him in a legible little puddle, so he could pick them over and examine them – well, he would have been surprised to uncover anything more profound than the expression of simple wants, needs and instructions to herself that would enable her to carry out her daily tasks around the house: ‘Bread, table. Knives, forks, spoons, salt. Toilet. Eat. Drink. Sex.’ That sort of thing. And yet she was an intelligent woman. It was extraordinary to him that he had never realised that she might have a secret life, something she kept away from him. Did she ever share these thoughts with anyone else? A friend? A ‘relative’? A journal?

‘What?’

‘Sorry?’

‘You’re just sitting there, staring. Finish your meal. Don’t you like it?’

‘What were you thinking about?’

‘You were the one sitting there not saying anything,’ she said. ‘I was only wondering what you were thinking about.’

‘I was wondering what sort of thing you think about.’ He felt slightly defeated by it all but to his surprise she laughed girlishly, as if he’d just made a rather wonderful joke. ‘I have these thoughts sometimes,’ he said. ‘Things I want to say to you that sound like poetry in my head. And I stop myself because they wouldn’t come out right.’

‘Like what?’ A little nostril flare of suspicion from her.

He pressed on: ‘I was going to say to you that I don’t mind it when we don’t say much to each other. It’s like being wrapped up in loft insulation. That’s all.’

He expected her to laugh again. But she stared at him for a few seconds as if he had just said something rather vulgar. Then she came over to him and kissed him once, very gently, on the mouth. Then she half sat on his leg, turned and pushed away the plate of half-eaten food, turned back to him and kissed him, putting her tongue in his mouth – did he taste of the food? – while grinding herself against him. He reached up under her shirt and pushed her bra up and felt her bare skin and then fumbled about – or they fumbled together – and got her knickers out of the way and his trousers undone and they had sex. It wasn’t ideal because of the still-warm food on the plate and not brushing his teeth and the sadness he had noticed in her. She was behaving as if they had just met in a nuclear shelter and the sirens were still going. He put his mouth on her skin, about an inch along from her nipple and bit her. He did it quite gently and she didn’t complain, as if she resisted letting him know anything about how she felt, even when she felt pain. Even when he caused it.

When they finished, she seemed giggly again. Happy, sad, happy. It was as if she was insane. ‘You’re not pregnant?’

‘You want a miracle here, at home?’ Now she was angry. Sometimes he felt he didn’t know her at all. What was there to be angry about? Did she want a child? Or was she simply making a joke? Perhaps she had been making a joke, pretending to be angry, and it had misfired. He felt tired. Desperately tired, as if it was the end of everything, as if he had just carried home something expensive and heavy to save a child’s life – an iron lung or some other breathing apparatus – only to find that the child had already died.

‘If I was certified as a miracle,’ she said, ‘you’d have to stay here and guard me. We could make love all day, then.’

Jesus. She seemed to want to have sex again. She took her top off. She took her skirt off. She took her knickers off. She looked sad again. Maybe it was because he was sitting there gawping, in an appalled kind of way.

She took off his shirt, tugged at his trousers, tried to pull him on top of her.

‘Not on the floor, you’ll get cold,’ he said.

She had one hand at the back of his neck, pulling his face down on hers so she could kiss him. She had her nose pressed right into his face.

‘You’re not crying?’

She didn’t answer. But her face was damp with tears.

He got her up off the floor and half carried her into the living room. It was unromantic. He was like a soldier escorting a wounded colleague. He got her on to the sofa. Perhaps they should talk about things. He’d probably said something wrong. Or not said the right thing. Was it the loft insulation or the miracles, or the food that had dried out in the oven? Perhaps she’d hoped he’d make it home earlier today?

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. It seemed as good a start as any. But she just wanted to have sex again. She was lying on her back and she had her neck resting at an angle on the arm of the sofa. He was worried about snapping it. If he was too energetic and he accidentally snapped her neck and she died instantly but he carried on having sex with her… Actually, it wouldn’t matter what people thought or if he went to prison because nothing would matter any more because his wife would have died, and he honestly wouldn’t want to live any more if she was dead. He thought the world of her.

‘Angela,’ he said afterwards, ‘let’s go away to Cornwall together.’ It was the sort of thing people in London said to each other all the time these days, without having any idea of how they would get there or whether living in Cornwall would really be any better than living in London. But if you wanted to excite and flatter a woman you were supposed to mention Cornwall, as if there could be nothing finer than taking her to a place where she’d be expected to earn her living by serving behind the counter in a supermarket or whatever they made them do there.

But women were funny like that. They were just like other people – they always wanted what they hadn’t got.

‘Lucas,’ she said. ‘If I could really believe that…’

‘About Cornwall?’

‘Some days I think I can’t bear another minute of it.’

‘You sound like one of those women, in those war-time films, you know – with their marvellous accents “I simply can’t bear another minute of it”.’

‘I can’t stand another fucking minute of it. Is that clear enough for you? Is that unstoic enough? Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. How would we get to Cornwall?’

Was this a rhetorical question?

‘With your job, you must know. How could we get to Cornwall? If you really meant it, Lucas, I’d go with you tomorrow.’

That’s the thing. He didn’t really mean it. For some reason that was mysterious even to him, he had used what was effectively a seduction line after he’d already had sex with her twice and without any urgent wish to do it for a third time, since he had a headache and his cock was a bit sore. It was unstrategic of him. He hadn’t thought it through.

‘Or Wales. We could go to Wales.’ She wasn’t going to let it go.

‘I didn’t know you wanted to go to Wales.’

‘Anywhere but here. Imagine if we lived somewhere by the sea, with nice friends, no restrictions on where we went or what we did. Kids playing happily. Not wondering what I’d do if I gave birth to a girl because bringing a girl into this world is a curse.’

‘What would I do for work?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘That’s the sort of thing you’ve got to worry about. How would I support us? Would they let us in to Cornwall?’

‘We’d find a way. As for being accepted – you’ve got money. If we didn’t ask for anything, only contributed…’

‘OK, look. Don’t get upset. Angela? Angela?’ She looked as if she would cry again. ‘Don’t get upset. I’ll look into it. I don’t know how these things work. We’ve got money but there are currency restrictions. What if it doesn’t have any value there?’

‘Find something that does.’

‘I’ll look into it.’

‘You’ve got friends in the Ministry.’

‘I have.’

‘You’ve got influence.’

‘Was that why you married me?’

‘What?’

‘Did you think I had something? Money, power? A way out? Because I don’t.’

‘I married you for your blue eyes.’

‘You know,’ he said, ‘sometimes I wonder if you’re happy.’

‘Happy? No, I’m not happy. Jesus. Of course I’m not happy. But that’s hardly your fault. It’s just the way things are.’

‘You married me for my blue eyes?’

‘You’re sweet. I like the sex, the sex is great. Yeah, you’ve got money and the car and the house and all that. It’s not about that, though, is it.’

‘We could have a baby.’

No answer.

‘Are you bored?’

‘I’m not bored. I’m a prisoner. I want to leave here.’

‘With me?’

‘With you.’

‘I love you, Angela.’

‘I know.’

You can’t say to someone – to your own wife, after she has revealed that she is deeply unhappy – you can’t say ‘So, do you love me, then?’ It might sound needy. He had said ‘I love you’ to her. She should have said it back to him. It was accepted, to bat it back; a reflex. The table tennis of love. She didn’t actually have to mean it. It was comforting, that’s all.

‘What?’ Sometimes she looked at him as if she could hear his thoughts. Why couldn’t he hear hers?

‘Nothing. I love you, Angela.’

‘I know.’

He’d have to try harder if he wanted her to say she loved him and mean it. A good job at the Ministry, sex most nights when he came home, money in the bank, food on the table – it wasn’t enough for her. She wanted to be happy.

‘Lucas?’

‘I was thinking about Cornwall. I was thinking about us driving to the beach – about you driving, if you wanted to – and lying there on the sand, looking up at the sky, without anyone asking us what we were doing.’

‘You really think it’s like that?’

‘A little house with a garden and a dog.’

‘You’re allowed dogs there?’

‘Why not? And a couple of kids. And friends. Having dinner with friends.’

‘I know the names I’d call my kids.’

‘Do you?’

‘Don’t sound so surprised.’

‘We’ve never discussed it.’

‘You think I only think about the things that you discuss with me?’

‘I’m not… you make me sound like an ogre. I don’t make the rules. I don’t think it’s fair.’

‘Don’t you? Why don’t you try and change it, then?’

It had never occurred to him before now that he might be married to a woman who was a seditionist. He felt a sickening shock of fear. His mouth flooded with a bitter taste, his breathing quickened. He picked up a napkin and put it to his mouth and drooled saliva into it, discreetly, to get rid of the taste. He lived in a misogynistic, patriarchal society but still, a man wasn’t supposed to sit and drool on the floor in his own home. His hands felt damp and cold, and his fingers unresponsive, too weak to close in on themselves and make a fist around the napkin. A terrible thought had suddenly come into his head: what if she was a spy? What if she had been asked to say this by the Ministry? Where had he met her, anyway? What did he know about her, really? Maybe it was a test. Perhaps if he tried to have sex with her again? It might take her mind off it. Besides, she was probably feeling pretty horny with all this talk of Cornwall. He put his hands on her.

‘Lucas. Don’t do that. Are you listening to me? Are you saying we can go to Cornwall?’

‘Yes.’

She put her arms around him and kissed him, dryly and gratefully, the way he’d seen her kiss a bottle opener once, after she’d spent half the day looking for it.

And that was it. She wasn’t a spy, she was an unhappy girl and it was in his power to make her happy. He’d made a promise to her, the woman he loved more than anything in the world. All he needed now was a miracle, ha ha.

‘I meant to tell you,’ Angela said. ‘Jesmond was here.’

‘You meant to tell me?’

‘He turned up around lunchtime.’

‘You didn’t let him in?’

‘He was hungry, I had to give him a meal. He had a notebook full of old poems and stuff. Said you might want to look through it.’

‘I’m not interested.’

She attempted an impersonation of Jesmond’s slightly florid style of speaking: ‘“My dear, let me list all the things I wish I could have left with you: a small, shiny shell picked up on a beach on an outing with a woman I was in love with, a poem written for Matthew and Anna when Lucas was born, a photo of my mother, a postcard from my brother sent shortly before he was taken. I’ve lost them all along the way – all except this. Keep it safe for me. They’ll want it for the archive one day, when the situation improves.”’

‘Oh. The archive!’

‘You know he adores you.’

‘If “adores” means turning up unannounced twice a year, stinking and skint and trying to cadge food off you while I’m out at work.’

‘Don’t be an arse.’

But Lucas was uneasy; you never knew who was watching the house.

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